After vowing to eat more seafood, along with scouring food magazines, websites and cookery books for new ways to serve sea bass, a necessary part of my healthy regime is a weekly expedition to Bolton’s fish market. Once in there, I remain faithful to the largest of the fish stalls and am rewarded with an exhibition that would make Damien Hirst’s artwork appear somewhat mediocre; for here resides the shark’s head, pinioned on its shore of ice, reminding its spectators of their supremacy in the natural world and what happens to all creatures who dare challenge human dominance. Nestled safely, next to the halibut, the shark’s flesh is cut into neat and unassuming steaklets, meekly accepting its future role: at best, chargrilled and served alongside a tangy tomato salad; at worse, the smell of ammonia destroying its affinity with capers and sun-dried tomatoes, fed - without garnish, to the cook’s Labrador.
Of course, there are other, less belligerent oceanic and river-dwelling creatures to tempt the explorer. The mackerel, for example, harmonically bedecked with blue-green bands upon its back competes for attention; its streamlined athletic body positively exudes omega 3 confirming its status as one of nature’s ‘super foods’. And if colour is to play a deciding factor when choosing fish, why not splash out on a little red number? What the diminutive red mullet lacks in size is more than made up for in glints of ruby and glimmers of gold.
Almost as diverse as the fish and seafood that deck this stall are their consumers; from seasoned pescatarians, through to recent converts (like me) and onto complete novices, like the shy young man I encountered just last week. With crumpled shopping-list in hand he is obviously there for ideas on how to impress his fiancée later on in the day with an elaborate supper of mussels steamed in white wine or perhaps baked sea bass with fennel. Nervously, he asks the fishmonger to take off his chosen specimen's head and remove the guts. Determined not to appear squeamish, he watches the fishmonger slit the underbelly of the bass and pull out its slippery mass of vital organs. Rinsed and wrapped, the young man jubilantly carries away his catch, heading towards the fruit and vegetable stalls, no doubt in search of fennel. Next in the queue is the Asian matriarch, oblivious to the notice which asks can customers refrain from touching the produce, this veteran cook is determined only to choose the healthiest, firmest, and bright-eyed of the bream she is currently prodding to take home to her family. Finally satisfied with a fish that remains resistant to finger-pressure and with eyes that would inspire a chart topper from Art Garfunkel, she hastens the fishmonger to wrap it; head, tail, fins, scales and all.
Each time I visit the fish market, I vow to try something different, be a little daring - perhaps experiment with flash-fried squid. Unfortunately, as soon as it’s my turn in the queue I turn my head away from the cephalopods’ alien dangling tentacles and point my finger predictably toward the much prettier rainbow trout. After all, who would want to eat something that once contained an ink sac?